Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Star at the World Cup
The March international break ahead of the FIFA World Cup is when the excitement for the tournament starts to kick in. Squads are being finalised, players are given final chances to stake their claims for places and managers tweak their tactics in preparation for the big event.
We know who each nation's star player is. The names Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo are ingrained in our consciousness, and we know the fates of entire countries rest on their shoulders.
But who are the under-the-radar performers—the ones we are not talking about—who could have a serious say on proceedings in Russia? We have profiled 10 guys you need to be monitoring come the summer.
Giorgian De Arrascaeta, AM, Uruguay
The Uruguay you see at the 2018 FIFA World Cup will not be the one you've become accustomed to. Gone are Oscar Tabarez's ageing corps of warhorses, such as Egidio Arevalo Rios and Alvaro Gonzalez; in their place, a new, more skilful generation comes to play.
Giorgian De Arrascaeta is spearheading this new crop, and his inclusion in the majority of Tabarez's most recent starting XIs is a cause for optimism. He's a different breed to what Las Charruas have generally produced over the past decade, a diminutive figure who wants to keep the ball and create. And if Uruguay can get him on the ball in advanced areas, chances will be created.
He can slip between the lines and clip passes into tight areas or start from wide and ping accurate crosses into Edinson Cavani. Two-footed and versatile, he makes for a complex equation for defenders to solve.
Fedor Smolov, ST, Russia
Every World Cup host is under immense pressure to perform well in front of a home crowd, and up until South Africa 2010, no host had ever failed to make it out of their group.
That history of success places an immense strain on players like Fedor Smolov, who is slated to lead Russia's attack this summer. If your strikers don't purr, you are eliminated pretty quickly—whoever you are.
Three of Russia's past four friendlies have seen Smolov accompanied by Aleksandr Kokorin, who is Sbornaya's most experienced striker on the international stage, but a knee injury will keep the latter out of the finals this summer.
The hosts desperately need Smolov to transfer his domestic goalscoring form (12 goals in 15 starts for Krasnodar) to this level.
Nawaf Al Abed, Winger, Saudi Arabia
Nawaf Al Abed is arguably Saudi Arabia's most talented player, and if they are to make any waves during the finals, he will surely be central to them.
Be it via accurate crosses, threaded through balls or speedy runs, you can count on Al Abed to create the lion's share of The Green Falcons' clear-cut chances—and chip in with a few himself if need be.
Not many will give Saudi Arabia a chance in Russia, but they have landed a level group alongside the hosts, Egypt and Uruguay. If their star man performs, they could be responsible for one of the tournament's major shocks.
Ruben Dias, CB, Portugal
Injury has kept Ruben Dias out of Portugal's latest squad, and that will likely infuriate Fernando Santos given the dearth of options he has at centre-back. It's the usual suspects for the European champions—Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves and Rolando—and the youngest of those is the latter at 32.
Dias remains uncapped but has used last season's impressive UEFA Youth League performances as a springboard to the Benfica first team, replacing Victor Lindelof in the heart of the defence.
He's no playmaking superstar but does provide the sort of rugged edge Santos looks for in his centre-backs. If he can clock in for Portugal's June friendlies, there's every chance he gets the nod alongside Pepe for the tournament.
Edwin Cardona, AM, Colombia
Colombia's magical run to the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup was predicated on James Rodriguez's brilliance, but the fact they were so reliant on him in the creative phase led to their downfall.
Brazil kicked him, kicked him and kicked him some during the quarter-final, reducing his impact, and manager Jose Pekerman had no second option to call upon to carry the load.
This time things might just be different. Colombians are delighted James is coming into peak form ahead of the finals but also that they boast a viable alternative to him in the form of Edwin Cardona. Play them together, and you can't mark one too tightly, as the other will dish out damage.
Nahitan Nandez, CM, Uruguay
Nahitan Nandez is another key part of Uruguay's new crop, and he seems likely to play a big part for his nation this summer.
The 22-year-old combines traditional Charrua traits (stamina, aggression and commitment) with a technical ability above that of the old guard. In many ways, he's the perfect conduit for Uruguay's stylistic transition, as he will give you box-to-box relentlessness but combine it with more style and quality.
The Boca Juniors man can feature as a central midfielder or further over to the right, so whichever formation Tabarez opts for, Nandez will fit right in.
Piotr Zielinski, CM, Poland
By far the most recognisable name on this list is Piotr Zielinski's, and by the time the World Cup rolls around, he could be a Serie A champion.
The midfielder represents something of a coaching triumph for Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri, who has moulded him into a brilliant playmaker capable of rubbing shoulders with Marek Hamsik, Dries Mertens and Co.
He qualified as under-the-radar because he's still not quite an automatic starter for his club and therefore isn't spoken about in the same adoring tones as the aforementioned players. However, he is his nation's most talented midfielder, and his ability to support Robert Lewandowski this summer could shape Poland's fortunes.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, ST, Serbia
After a strange half-season in near-exile at Newcastle United, Aleksandar Mitrovic has come alive in the Championship on loan at Fulham.
He's rejuvenated their promotion push, giving them the striker they have needed for around 18 months by adding a ruthless, robust edge to their beautiful buildup play.
While this has obviously pleased Fulham fans—they are about ready to crown him their lord and saviour—it surely must also warm the hearts of Serbs to know their first-choice No. 9 is in form, sharp and happy ahead of the World Cup.
The makeup of the Eagles' squad looks solid and dependable overall, and when you add a potent Mitrovic to the game-breaking talents of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, expectations are justifiably be upped.
Frank Fabra, LB, Colombia
Everyone loves a flying full-back, and Frank Fabra is exactly that.
Coach Jose Pekerman harnesses and embraces the Boca Juniors man's athleticism and directness, and you can expect him to delight spectators with his powerful runs down the flank.
Last time Colombia participated in a finals event—the 2016 Copa America—Fabra shone, emerging as a prime creative outlet in a team lacking cohesion. Los Cafeteros will hope he can find a similarly decisive level in Russia.
Trezeguet, Winger/AM, Egypt
With all eyes fixated on Mohamed Salah, Egypt's other midfield options might just find plenty of room to play in. At the very worst, they will find themselves one-on-one. But in some cases, they might have to be left free.
Trezeguet—or Mahmoud Hassan, to use his real name—could thrive in the space opponents leave him. He's one of Egypt's most skilful, technical players, is enjoying arguably the finest domestic season of his career and looks set to beat Ramadan Sobhi for a place in Hector Cuper's starting XI.